DEL MAR — A day at the beach nearly ended in tragedy. But thanks to the rapid response of Del Mar lifeguards, a Good Samaritan, persistent medical professionals, prayers and a miracle, a Rancho Bernardo teenager is alive and eager to get back in the water.
Noah Hultner has been a club swimmer since he was 9 years old. He competes for Westview High School’s varsity team, plans to continue the sport in college and is close to reaching an Olympic qualifying time in one of his freestyle events.
So when he was found floating face down in 3 feet of water, his parents understandably wanted to know, “How does an expert swimmer nearly drown?”
It began July 3, when Monique Hultner decided to take her son, Noah, and daughters Natalie and Arielle to the beach. They stopped to pick up one of Natalie’s friends before heading to Del Mar, where they set up in front of the main lifeguard tower.
Around 1 p.m., Noah told his mother he wasn’t going in the ocean anymore because he wanted to save his energy for swim practice later that day, but he was going wading to cool off.
Monique began packing up and was on the phone with her husband, Michael, who was waiting to board a plane home from Washington, D.C., when Natalie came and told her in a “frantic tone” that Noah was in trouble, and he was with the lifeguards.
Monique saw the lifeguard vehicle at the shore line and when she arrived on the scene, lifeguards were performing CPR on her son.
“He didn’t look like he could be put back together,” Monique said. “He was foaming at the mouth. His body was gray/white.
“I was horrified, as any mother would be,” she said. “It didn’t make sense.”
Lifeguards continued to work on Noah until the ambulance arrived. Monique called her mother to pick up the girls, whom she left in the care of the lifeguards.
While driving to the hospital she called to update her husband, whose flight had been delayed.
“I was a paramedic in that area in college and had done CPR on people in that situation,” Michael said. “None of them survived. I was thinking we weren’t getting him back. And I was looking at six hours in the air and not knowing what was going on.”
A nurse at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla allowed Monique to stay in the emergency room with her son. Noah was intubated and about a half gallon of seawater — roughly the amount of fluid in a 2-liter plastic soda bottle — was suctioned from his lungs.
He had no “purposeful movement” in the ER, which meant his brain was not functioning normally, Michael said.
Doctors decided to cool Noah’s body to reduce any additional damage to his heart and lungs and placed him in a hypothermic coma.
Noah remained on life support for two days. His heart was in shock and he couldn’t maintain a blood pressure. X-rays showed his lungs were white from top to bottom, his father said, and his heart was functioning at 17 percent of normal.
“The neurologist was telling us it was not if he would have brain damage, but how much,” Michael said.
“But they were all wrong,” added Noah, who said he doesn’t remember anything about the day beyond picking up his sister’s friend. He doesn’t even recall being at the beach.
“We were preparing for the worst,” Michael said.
“A lot of people were praying for him,” Monique added. “We received so much positive support from family and friends. I was not going to give up hope until there was no hope left.”
Eventually doctors began to raise Noah’s body temperature and reduce his medication.
“What gave me hope was when they discontinued the sedatives for a few minutes, he started to try to get out of bed,” Michael said.
At this point, Noah said, he remembers “a few seconds at a time.”
“I felt cold,” he said. “Then I went back to sleep. It was like a really weird dream.”
As his body warmed, Noah “started showing signs of his personality,” Michael recalled. On July 6 the breathing tube was removed, and on July 11 — eight days after all feared the worst — the teenager was released from the hospital.
While Noah was in a coma, his parents tried to determine what happened. They worked with Pat Vergne, lifeguard chief, to possibly find video of Noah collapsing. A beach camera caught him entering the water but scanned away before he went down.
They reached out to the passer-by who pulled their son from the water. Everything from an allergic reaction to a bee sting to being hit by a surfboard was ruled out.
Michael said it came down to either sudden cardiac arrest or a sea monster, “and there was no evidence to support the sea monster theory.”
SCA is a sudden abnormality in the heart’s electrical system that abruptly stops the heartbeat. To decrease the risk of having another episode, Noah had an automatic defibrillator implanted in his chest.
“I didn’t want to at first, especially since it would keep me out of swimming longer,” Noah said. “But it’s going to keep me from dying. … And I knew (if I didn’t) my parents wouldn’t let me do anything because I could die randomly.”
Noah received a new version of the device with leads that will not interfere with his swim strokes.
The Hultners don’t know where to begin to thank everyone involved in saving Noah’s life, from their cardiologists, Drs. John Harrington and Steve Higgins, to the emergency room nurses, other hospital staff and paramedics.
“Pat Vergne and the Del Mar lifeguards were amazing, not only for all they did on the scene to save Noah but for all their help as we tried to solve the mystery of what happened,” Monique added.
“It’s our worst nightmare to have someone collapse in front of us,” Vergne said. “We train extensively for this, and in this particular case, we’re happy that training paid off.
“A thank you is more than adequate,” Vergne said when asked what the Hultners could do to repay them for all they did. “Just coming by to say hello would be much appreciated.”
The Hultners said they are also indebted to family, friends and Noah’s North Coast Aquatics teammates and coach, Greg Spire, for helping them throughout the ordeal.
They are now working with the Eric Paredes Save a Life Foundation, which provides free screenings to teens to help identify cardiac anomalies that could lead to SCA.
As scientists, Michael and Monique know the medical professionals had a lot to do with the outcome, but they also believe luck and miracles played a part.
“So many things happened perfectly,” Michael said. “From being right in front of the lifeguard station when it happened to the passer-by who made it his business when he saw Noah in the water.”
“It has to be more than just science and medicine,” Monique added.
As for Noah, he recently started his junior year at Westview and is anxious to get back in the water.
“I want to thank everyone for helping me,” he said. “I’m really thankful to be alive.”